Golf is not just about getting the ball in the hole. Golf is visceral, engaging all of the physical senses — especially sight — and it is the total experience (food, drink, lodging, people, other activities) that makes you cherish the memory years later.
This is especially true at Kauri Cliffs on New Zealand’s North Island. Giddy writers and guests have exhausted every superlative since the resort opened in 2000, and I have yet to hear of anyone being disappointed. Still, the anticipation factor soars as soon as you commit to the trip — a 12-hour flight from Los Angeles to Auckland and a four-hour drive (or one-hour flight) to Matauri Bay.
The journey is not as bad as it sounds. If you travel on Air New Zealand, you’ll get used to the kiwi accent as cheery attendants ply you with fine New Zealand wines and food. You’ll wake up on the other side of the world — having lost a day as the plane crossed the International Date Line — trying to figure out how to set your watch.
We arrived at The Lodge at Kauri Cliffs after dark, which is the way I like it, so I can awake fresh and ready to play in the early light. A softly lit path led to 11 cottages (each with two suites) hidden in the trees. Our door opened onto warm, comfortable rooms with deep lounge chairs facing the fireplace. Retracing our steps to the main lodge/clubhouse, we dined on fresh local seafood and lamb prepared by a masterful chef. The lodge — whose exterior resembles a plantation house in the Carolinas — features a homey interior with wide-plank floors, cushy leather chairs, huge fireplaces and Maori art. It’s definitely guy-friendly, but the resort has a softer side as well: a sumptuous spa with an indoor lap pool and several programs geared to women.
It takes style and deep pockets to transform a remote 6,000-acre sheep farm into a world-class resort whose star remains firmly fixed in the top tiers of golf and resort rankings. American hedge fund legend Julian Robertson and his late wife, Josie, had both, plus the savvy to choose a golf architect with a light touch. The late David Harman made 46 trips from his home in Florida to Kauri Cliffs. He knew when to help Mother Nature and when to leave her alone. Together they created a masterpiece.
The early-morning scene from the veranda makes it impossible to linger over breakfast. Veiled in a gauzy fog, rocky promontories jut from the Bay of Islands, providing a surreal backdrop to the course. Emerald fairways sweep across the landscape, punctuated here and there by the darker green of ravines and copses of spiky Norfolk pines. That’s the view from 15 holes, some of which teeter on 250-foot cliffs above the ocean. Every hole is unique and memorable — even the inland 10, 11 and 12, which demand respect even as you’re longing for a return to the sea cliffs.
Hole 1 Takou | 471 yards, par 4
The opening hole is named for Takou Bay, the sacred resting place of one of the great sea-going canoes by which Polynesians first came to New Zealand 1,000 years ago. Though the farthest hole from the ocean, it claims the highest point on the course, offering a tantalizing overview of what’s in store. Relatively straightforward, the hole descends to a green that drops off on the left and rear.
Hole 7 Cavalli | 220 yards, par 3
Named for the Cavalli Islands sprinkling the horizon, this beauty requires a carry over a ravine to a green dropping toward the sea on the right and rear. Also subject to wind off the ocean, it tests one’s club selection. Fortunately, Harman sculpted a bowl on the left side of the green, so golfers have a chance to bank the ball onto the putting surface. The view back from the tee encompasses Pink Beach, so named for the millions of sea shells that give it its rosy hue. It’s worth the hike later for a closer look — and a picnic.
Hole 8 Warrior | 539 yards, par 5
Bravery is called for on this uphill par 5 to a long, narrow, tiered green. Balls are easily swallowed up by foliage on the left, and the green presents a mean target, with three-putt possibilities.
Hole 9 Giant Steps | 386 yards, par 4
A brush-choked chasm in front of the tee boxes provides visual intimidation, but the real challenge comes in the severe uphill climb to the green. The putting surface is large and deep, but a couple of bunkers in the back discourage cavalier approach shots.
Hole 14 Waiaua Bay | 230 yards, par 3
This long par 3 is downhill, but balls that stray left or long can be considered long gone. The capricious wind can help or hinder, and the spectacular view of the sea and coastline offers considerable solace if you guess wrong.
Hole 18 Tane Mahuta | 539 yards, par 5
The four cliff-top holes, 14 through 17, provide a feast for the senses, but the 18th hole, Tane Mahuta (“Lord of the Forest” in Maori), brings golfers back to Earth with another climb (like Hole 9) across a ravine to an uphill fairway topped by the lodge and cottages in the tree line. This hole feels bittersweet. It can be the coup de grâce to your score, not that it really matters. Is there time for another round? With tee times set at least 30 minutes apart, it’s okay to linger in wide-eyed thrall on the cliff-side holes — or indulge in a futile search for that new ball the sea breeze carried away. Don’t let your ego talk you into playing from the 7,119-yard back tees. Life’s too short to spend it in the rough — especially on a layout like this.
139 Tepene Tablelands Road
Matauri Bay 0478
tel 64 9 407 0010
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